As governments around the world are increasingly allowing the Cannabis argument onto the agenda, the conversation has become about more than just medical or recreational. The uses of Hemp – the Cannabis plant that doesn’t get you high – have long been neglected.
However, this versatile plant is finally beginning to get the credit it deserves. With uses ranging from construction materials and fuel to biodegradable plastics, Hemp could be a significant player in reducing the world’s carbon emissions.
With an astonishing amount of petroleum-derived plastics being spilled into the oceans and landfills every year, people are increasingly questioning if there could be a better way. Plant bioplastics could offer a more sustainable alternative, and Hemp plastics could be a frontrunner.
The Global Plastic Problem
Global plastic production has seen a steady increase year-on-year since its invention in the 1960s. In 2015, as production reached an all-time high, it was estimated that 381 million tonnes were produced. Of this, only 19.5% was recycled, leaving 25.5% being incinerated, and 55% to be ‘discarded’. Unfortunately, the rather neatly termed ‘discarded’ means that it was either sent to landfill or ended up in the ocean.
Despite a steady increase in recycling since the 1980s, the industry remains massively unsustainable. Mainstream plastics, most of which are produced from petroleum, can take between 400 and 1,000 years to degrade, and it is estimated that there are already 150 million metric tonnes in the ocean.
What are Plant Bioplastics?
Before the commercial boom of modern plastics, plant bioplastics were in circulation from 1912 onwards. These were made from cellulose from plants like corn, cotton, and Hemp. In comparison to modern petrochemical plastics which can take 1,000 years to degrade, bioplastics can degrade naturally in just a few months.
These cellulose bioplastics thrived until the 60s (cellophane was named after the cellulose that it was originally made from). However, the scale of production was minute in comparison to the modern plastics industry,
Why Hemp Plastic?
Bioplastics can be made from a wide variety of plants. However, few of these plants grow as fast as Hemp. Hemp can reach a height of five feet in just a few weeks and has been known to reach 20 feet in months. This means that a large amount of product can be harvested relatively quickly. In comparison to one hectare of cotton, the same area of Hemp can produce two or three times more fibre, annually.
The Cannabis plant can also help to reduce pollution further. Not only does it not require pesticides or herbicides to grow, but it is also one of the most effective carbon dioxide stores on the planet. In fact, it is thought to absorb more CO2 per hectare than any other commercial crop or forestry.
Hemp also improves growing conditions for other crops. It can shade out weeds, and improve soil health by locking in nitrogen and even toxic metals. Hemp was even used to help clean up the nuclear spill at Chernobyl.
In comparison to corn – another effective product for plant bioplastics – Hemp reduces food waste. Corn is a valuable food source, so it would make little sense to harvest it for plastic production, rather than food. Hemp, however, does not have this problem.
All parts of the Hemp plant can also be put to further use. This includes the seed oil, which can be converted into anything from biofuel to cosmetics products. The ‘hurd’ can also be used in construction as a green alternative to concrete. The fibre has also been used to create textiles for thousands of years.
Despite being a more sustainable way to satisfy our need for plastics, innovators are yet to find a cost-competitive way to produce them. In the case of Hemp plastics, this could be partially down to the prohibition of Cannabis, which took hold internationally in the 1920s and 30s. However, there is some hope that technology will catch up.
Many large companies are now investing in the possibility of replacing their synthetic plastic products with bio-plastics. One of the largest toy companies in the world, Lego, has recently joined this list. The company announced that it was exploring the possibility of replacing its synthetic plastic bricks, with a Hemp alternative.
A Fair Comparison
Producing plastics from plant sources is more expensive than its synthetic counterpart. But, this may not remain true for long. Researchers have found that the cost of producing bioplastics is reducing, as the cost of petroleum – which most plastics are made from – is increasing. The companies that succeed in finding a more cost-effective method of producing bioplastics also stand to make millions, as demand for the technology increases.
It would be naive to suggest the Hemp could solve all of our plastic woes. Plastics made from plants would not be a viable option for all products. However, plant bioplastics do have the potential to massively reduce our plastic issue. Replacing single-use plastics with Hemp-derived plastic would decrease both plastic waste and our carbon emissions.